‘The Menu’ Serves Up Quite a Devious Dish

To me, “The Menu” is what Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” would be had it been set in a restaurant. While not as insanely crazy as “Midsommar,” this film is an insidiously clever black comedy which follows a group of people as they travel to a remote island (is there any other kind in a movie like this?) where an exclusive restaurant named Hawthorn, which is run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, is located. But while the chef has prepared quite the cuisine for his selected guests, some sinister intentions are eventually unveiled for all to see which turns a special occasion into an inescapable nightmare. It all made me wonder if the screenplay was written by individuals who had been waiting tables for too long and been stiffed on tips one too many times. Or maybe it was conceived by a talented chef who was sick of people eating food and not tasting it. Or perhaps it was written by someone eager to illustrate the ultimate wet dream of Gordon Ramsay. Seriously, I can’t wait to hear what Gordon or even the Swedish Chef have to say about this.

“The Menu” starts with us being introduced to the guests who have been carefully invited to this especially special restaurant. Among them are a trio of drunk tech workers who have plenty of money to burn, an older couple who have visited Hawthorn several times previously, a celebrated restaurant critic and her devoted magazine editor, and a middle-age Hollywood movie star whose relationship with his assistant, who is by his side on this trip, is not entirely professional. From the outset, it looks like we have the typical cast of characters here, but this will be challenged as the filmmakers are quick to play with our expectations.

Also onboard is Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult), a super-obsessed foodie who aspires to learn everything he can about cooking from Slowik. With him is his date, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose love of food doesn’t come even close to his, and he is quick to admonish her for smoking as it will ruin her palette. When it comes to an exclusive restaurant like this, you want to spend more time tasting than eating, and this is echoed by Slowik once his guests are seated at their tables.

As everyone is led on a tour through the island by Slowik’s trusted right-hand person, Elsa (Hong Chau), they are told the ingredients for tonight’s meals come from the island and the nearby ocean. But once we get to see the employees’ sleeping quarters, which look similar to the beds those cult members slept on in “Midsommar,” this our first hint that things are going to go haywire as his fellow cooks act in a very unified way, and this made even clearer when Slowik claps his hands loudly to get everyone’s attention. Yes, that’s all he needs to do to bring his fellow cooks in line, and they are ever so quick to do so in the process.

Slowik tells everyone that the mission of this evening is not to eat, but to instead taste and savor the food given to them. But as the evening goes on, we see he is not out to congratulate his guests as he is to belittle them. This becomes apparent when he makes a deliberate mockery out of “Taco Tuesday” and presents his guests with tortillas which are as tasty as they are far too revealing. From there, the party becomes very dark and oppressive in a way only the Hawthorne employees could see coming.

Revealing more about “The Menu” might take away from your enjoyment, and I refuse to rob you of its many surprises. What I can tell you is that it is a lot like those movies which really gain my affection; it’s like an onion which invites you to peel back its many layers. And once you get past the final layer, you will find yourself wanting to watching this film again as putting all the pieces together will be irresistible. Moreover, this film held my attention from start to finish as I constantly wondered what direction the story would take next as we are taking from one food course to the next with little in the way of hesitation.

At its heart. Director Mark Mylod and screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy look to satirize the cruel divisions between the haves and have nots and of a society that never seems to have time for the finer things in life. Granted, I came out of “The Menu” thinking the satire could have been even deeper and sharper, but its is sharp enough to make for a gleefully twisted motion picture, and I am always looking for a good black comedy.

I was also struck by how good the actors are as they could have played their roles ever so broadly, but instead find nuances to where their characters are not mere cliches. Both Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein make renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom and her magazine editor Ted into more than caricatures as their surface appearances can only hide the hideous takedowns they have written and published on restaurants past for so long. Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr at first give us the kind of tech gurus who think they have it made to where money can seemingly buy everything, and each actor makes the ego-crushing their characters endure all the more brutal.

Nicholas Hoult quickly turns Tyler into a believably devoted foodie to where the reveal of his cooking style made me feel strangely sorry for him. And I can always count on John Leguizamo to give me a great time as he gives us the kind of washed-up actor here which he has had the misfortune of working with in real life, and Aimee Carrero has some choice moments as his long-time assistant Felicity who learns there is actually a downside to not having student loans to par off.

But there are some performances I really want to single out here, and among them is Ralph Fiennes’s. As celebrity chef Julian Slowik, I expected the actor who was the first to ever utter the word “fuck” in a James Bond movie (“No Time to Die” to be exact) to turn this character into some demented madman. But while Julian does have some demented plans for this evening, Fiennes makes him at times empathetic as he shows an emotional pain searing through which we can see in his eyes. This is especially apparent in his scenes Anna Taylor-Joy as her character of Margot is the one who was not actually invited to this particular dining experience, and this results in exhibiting some kind of hope that this dinner might have a positive outcome.

As for Taylor-Joy, best known for a Netflix miniseries I should have watched already, “The Queen’s Gambit,” she has the unique challenge of being the audience surrogate as, like her, we are desperately looking for a way out of this hellish situation which does not look to have a happy ending. She makes Margot an especially strong character even as fear threatens to engulf her every second. Watching her here, it’s no wonder she was picked to star in the upcoming “Furiosa” prequel.

I also really admired Hong Chau’s enigmatic performance as Chef Slowik’s right hand person, Elsa. From the screenplay, only so much is revealed about Elsa, and yet Chau turned into one of the most riveting characters to be found in “The Menu.” Watching Chau here makes me wonder what kind of backstory she created for Elsa as she dares you to see if you have the guts to peel back her many layers to reveal who she really is underneath her orderly appearance.

I really do hope audiences get to check out “The Menu” and that it doesn’t get lost in the midst of all the blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls which are about to invade multiplexes everywhere. Movies like these tend to get smothered too quickly as they have to deal with the latest superhero adventure, sequel or potential franchise installment. What’s wrong with enjoying movies which are standalone ones anyway?

Also, I cannot wait to recommend it to people like my dad and brother, both of whom love to cook. There’s no doubt they will be tickled to death by this one, and they will come out of it thankful that they are not running their own restaurants, something which is the furthest from their minds.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Lost Highway’ – One of My Favorite David Lynch Films

I remember when I first watched David Lynch’s film “Lost Highway” back in 1997. I saw it at a small theater in Newport Beach where the screen ratio was off by a bit, and the opening credits did not fit onto the silver screen as a result. I left the theater feeling a bit cold as I was not sure what to make of What I saw, and the ending seemed so absurdly abrupt to where I wonder if Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford had simply run out of ideas and went down a rabbit hole they could not dig themselves out of. The way I saw it, this film was easily upstaged by its soundtrack which proved to be one of my favorites from the 1990’s with its music by Angelo Badalamenti, Nine Inch Nails. Barry Adamson, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson.

A few days later, however, I found myself thinking about “Lost Highway” a lot to where I could not put it out of my head. I could not figure out why initially, but then I found the answer in a review of the movie I read in Video Watchdog. I cannot remember the critic’s name, but they wrote it’s not about how the film affects you while you watch it, but how it affects you after you have watched it. I could not agree with this more, and it made me watch “Lost Highway” again, but this time in a THX approved theater with better sights and sound.

I have since revisited “Lost Highway” again and again over the years, and I revisited it yet again at the Nuart Theatre which presented this Lynch cult classic in a 4K restoration personally supervised by the director. While it may not seem as brilliant as “Blue Velvet” or “Mulholland Drive,” it remains one of my favorite films of Lynch’s as it presents us with a puzzle of a story which might be easier to solve than at first glance.

We are introduced to the married couple of saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Renee who live in the Hollywood Hills. Their marriage looks to be a cold one, lacking in passion. When it comes down it, Fred is far more able to get orgasms out of his saxophone solos than with Renee, and he becomes suspicious that she might be seeing someone behind his back.

Things get more unsettling for them when they discover someone has been leaving videotapes for them on their doorstep. The first one features a view of the outside of their house, but the second goes even further as it shows footage of them asleep in their bed. They call the police, but they are of little help in finding out who filmed them. Next thing you know, Fred finds and views another videotape which shows him hovering over Renee’s dismembered body, and from there he finds himself on death row for her murder.

Lynch has described “Lost Highway” as being a “psychogenic fugue,” a rare psychiatric phenomenon characterized by reversible amnesia for one’s identity. Others have compared the film to a Möbius strip, a non-orientable strip which one cannot consistently distinguish clockwise and counterclockwise turns. Both of these make sense as the beginning may very well be the end, and the end may very well be the beginning.

This is even further enhanced by Lynch saying he was partially inspired by the O.J. Simpson murder trial which came to dominate the early 1990’s. Indeed, I can see this inspiration all throughout “Lost Highway” as Simpson has not, nor will he ever, admit to committing any murders. For all we know, Simpson may still not know what he did as he has long since blacked it out of his mind. The same goes with Fred Madison as he cannot believe it when a certain video implies he murdered his wife in a most horrible way, but this doesn’t stop a jury of his peers from finding him guilty and putting him on death row.

There is a scene where the police visit Fred and Renee at their home after they received the second video, and Renee talks about how Fred hates video cameras and doesn’t want them in the house. His explanation is as follows:

“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

I have come to refer to this dialogue as the Dinesh D’Souza line as he continues to sell anyone and everyone on a narrative which just isn’t the least bit true. But regardless of how you view this film, one thing should remain clear: videotapes do not lie. Just look at what Detective Mike Kellerman (played by Reed Diamond) said in one episode of “Homicide – Life on the Street:”

“Videotape, it’s the perfect witness. It can’t change its testimony, and it can’t forget what somebody looks like.”

Indeed, “Lost Highway” is all about Fred Madison trying to escape the truth of what he did or, perhaps, what everyone thinks he did. As a result, he goes through a rather grotesque transformation which ends up turning him into a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (played by Balthazar Getty), and he gets released from prison. But as he now experiences life as a free man, he comes to meet the gangster Mr. Eddy’s mistress, Alice Wakefield. The only thing is, she looks a lot like Fred’s late wife, Renee. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact Patricia Arquette is playing Alice as well as Renee.

“Lost Highway” has long since become one of my favorite David Lynch films, and while “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive” are regarded more highly, this one is so much fun to view again and again. The whole thing is a complex puzzle, and I am convinced I can still solve its mysteries in ways I cannot with Lynch’s other works. I am not even going to try and make sense of “Inland Empire.”

With Pullman’s character of Fred, he is trying to stay ahead many steps of his darkest memories and actions, assuming they are true. But the deeper he digs into his psyche to escape an especially harsh reality, the more memories and familiar faces keep coming up. I like how Pullman plays Fred as a suspicious man who finds himself caught up in a situation he does not understand but which leaves him with the worst headaches imaginable.

Patricia Arquette is a marvel here as both Renee and Alice as she opens herself up, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s great to watch her go from portraying a scared wife to a dominant seductress who holds Pete very tightly within her grasp. Seriously, watching this Oscar winning actress here should serve as reminder of just how much stronger women are than men, especially when men are led by certain parts of their bodies other than their brains.

Who could have known this would have been Robert Blake’s last performance ever in a motion picture before the whole… Well, you know. Still, his work here as the Mystery Man is wonderfully chilling as he clearly took joy in crafting a character unlike any he played previously. When he glares at you, there is no escape, and seeing him without eyebrows makes his presence all the more unnerving. It’s an original performance which people never give enough credit to.

There are many moments from “Lost Highway” which will forever stay with me like when Fred Madison walks into the darkness of his home and re-emerges as someone much different, Robert Loggia who, as Mr. Eddy, unleashes his rage at an ignorant motorist for tailgating him, seeing Alice and Pete have sex in front of a car’s headlights, and the final scene where a character transforms in a hideously angry fashion. All of them are aided by the haunting musical soundscapes created by Angelo Badalamenti and Trent Reznor, the cinematography of Peter Deming, and the strange appearances pf both Richard Pryor and Gary Busey which had me wondering if Lynch was using dream logic in the same way Darren Aronofsky did in “Mother.”

“Lost Highway” provided me with one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. It left me at odds upon the beginning of its end credits, but it stayed with me from there on out, and I constantly find myself returning to it and its awesome soundtrack. This truly is an art picture as it can be interpreted in many ways, and I know I will come back to it again before I know it. Just remember one thing, Dick Laurent is dead.

* * * * out of * * * *